Royal Lochnagar Distillery – The Queen’s Own

Visitors centre at Royal Lochnagar Distillery

Royal Lochnagar History

Whisky distilling was once an essential part of farming life in Scotland and Ireland. Not only was the spirit used for medicinal and recreational purposes, but it was a great way of turning surplus barley into cash. Farms and castles had their own still-houses on-site, and it was an additional means of local employment.

Farm distilling and the sale of whisky was legal until 1780 when it was banned. People continued the practice in secret though, running illicit stills throughout the highlands and lowlands. Stills were hidden away in caves or secreted in isolated bothies. Often the whisky was stored underground, or amongst the thick shrubs of heather in the hills. Business was lucrative despite the ban. Subsequently, with the removal of the ban in 1823, a number of the illicit distillers resented the competition from those who bought licenses.

James Robertson was one who received a licence, and in 1823 he established a distillery at Crathie on the north-side of the River Dee. However, he soon fell afoul of those who had been distilling illegally, and his distillery was burned to the ground by arsonists in 1826. Robertson rebuilt the distillery near Mount Lochnagar (also known as Beinn Chìochan), but by 1841 it too was destroyed by fire.

In 1845 John Begg established a separate distillery, on the south side of the Dee. He named his distillery New Lochnagar. Circumstances were much more favourable for Begg, as by this time legal distilling was acceptable, and most fortuitously, in 1848 he gained powerful new neighbours. At Begg’s invitation, the new inhabitants of Balmoral visited his little distillery. Begg’s whisky turned out to be especially popular with her highness, and subsequently, Queen Victoria issued a Royal Warrant for its ongoing supply to the Royal Household.  Begg quickly renamed New Lochnagar Distillery to Royal Lochnagar.

Alfred Barnard visited Royal Lochnagar in 1885-86, and noted (1):

  • Three Malt Barns of triangular shape, between 60-90ft in length and 30-40ft width, with two levels, each holding 2,700 quarters (34,291 kg) of barley
  • One Malt House (separate to the malt barns) 105ft long by 64ft wide, with stone floors and an ancient stone steep capable of wetting 30 quarters of barley,
  • A Mash Tun 10ft diameter and 4ft depth, along with a Mashing Machine with revolving stirring rakes powered by a waterwheel,
  • The Wort Cooler between the Underback and the five Washbacks was 54ft long and 27ft wide,
  • The Washbacks hold 800 gallons / 3,028 litres each,
  • Two Pot Stills, each with a capacity of 1,362 gallons / 5,115 litres (wash still) and 899 gallons /3, 403 litres (spirit still),
  • Square Worm Tubs with a constant flow from the Craignagall dam/reservoir,
  • Two duty-free warehouses. Most of the warehousing was in Aberdeen, where Royal Lochnagar had eight warehouses on the quay.
  • 100 head of cattle on 130 acres of farmland. The cows are fed the draff and spent wash from the distillery,
  • All power is from waterwheels; there is no steam heating,
  • Output for the distillery year 1884-85 was 65,000 gallons / 246,051 litres of whisky.
Photograph of a framed sketch by Alfred Barnard of Royal Lochnagar when he visited around 1885-1887
Photograph of a framed sketch by Alfred Barnard of Royal Lochnagar when he visited around 1885-1887

Royal Lochnagar Distillery was shut down during both World Wars and later underwent a substantial reconstruction in 1963. The Mash Tun, Washbacks and Stills were all replaced although many traditional distilling methods were retained such as the use of worm tubs.

Notable differences between the Royal Lochnagar Distillery that Alfred Barnard visited in 1885-86 and now:

  • If Barnard correctly noted the capacity rather than the charge, then the stills held roughly 2,000 fewer litres when he visited than those used today. Annual production in 2016-17 is around 200,000 litres more than it was in 1884-85.
  • The worm tubs used water directly from the reservoir, via continuous stream, meaning it is most likely cold water. The use of hot water in the worm tubs today allows the spirit to remain as a vapour for longer. Subsequently, it continues to react with the copper, removing more of the heavier phenol properties, helping Royal Lochnagar to produce a ‘lighter’ spirit.
  • The Malt Floors are now used for Warehousing and storage as the barley is malted off site and trucked in.

Getting to Royal Lochnagar Distillery

Royal Lochnagar Distillery is located in the eastern Highlands, in the middle of the Cairngorms National Park, off the A93/B976 (57.0346705,-3.2076434). The distillery is easy to find as there is a lot of prominent signage, even more than there is for Balmoral Castle!

Buses are available from Ballater and Braemar (the towns nearest and on either side of Balmoral) and are run by Stagecoach North Scotland. Both stop about 1 mile from the distillery.

Royal Lochnagar Address

Royal Lochnagar Tours and Bookings

For bookings Tel: 013397 42700 or email: royal.lochnagar.distillery@diageo.com

Royal Lochnagar Distillery Tour – £8 – for a guided tour of the distillery including the filling store and warehouse, followed by a dram of the Royal Lochnagar 12-Year-Old.

Royal Lochnagar Tasting Tour – £12 – for a  guided tour of the whole distillery, followed by a dram of the Royal Lochnagar 12-Year-Old and other exclusive whiskies.

Warehouse Experience – £20 – for veteran distillery visitors wanting to taste samples straight from the cask. Advanced booking required.

Dram at the Dam – £20 – for a guided tour of the whole distillery followed by a scenic walk to Royal Lochnagar’s Top Dam water supply, and a sample of an award winning malt. Advanced booking required.

Royal Tour – £35 – includes a welcoming coffee, homemade shortbread and an in-depth tour of how Royal Lochnagar makes their whisky. Advanced booking required.

Useful Visitor Information

As with all Diageo distilleries, photos are also not allowed in production areas, which is most of the distillery. No, it’s not because they think you’ll try and steal their ideas or equipment design! Ethanol is highly flammable, and electronic equipment poses a potential source of ignition. As such, they’ve implemented a policy on all their sites – no electronic devices to be in use in production areas, or where ethanol is likely to be in higher concentrations (like warehouses).

Royal Lochnagar is a small distillery. Bookings for groups of 8 or more are highly advisable, but even with smaller groups, it pays to book ahead where possible. Distillery tourism is becoming very popular, especially during the peak summer months, and many distilleries book out.

Accommodation

The towns of Ballater and Braemar have quite a few options.

We stayed in the tiny village of Tarland, a 30-minute drive from Royal Lochnagar, where there is a good basic budget option at the Aberdeen Arms Hotel

Royal Lochnagar Whisky

Royal Lochnagar spirit is known for its light, fruity, nutty, grassy flavour. It is generally colour/caramel enhanced and chill filtered. Their whisky is predominantly used in Johnnie Walker blends, as well as Windsor (popular in Korea).

Diamond Jubilee

Queen Elizabeth’s 60 year Diamond Jubilee celebrations included a special edition Johnnie Walker blend, crafted using whiskies from 1952 (the year she acceded to the throne). Royal Lochnagar housed two of the Jubilee casks in their warehouses. Exquisitely bottled and packaged in hand crafted cabinets, 60 bottles went on sale from £100,000 each in 2012.

John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee cask for Queen Elizabeth II's 60 year anniversary of her reign (1952-2012)
John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee cask for Queen Elizabeth II's 60 year anniversary of her reign (1952-2012)

Royal Lochnagar Distillery Images

Visitors centre at Royal Lochnagar Distillery
Visitors centre at Royal Lochnagar Distillery.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery Cooperage
Royal Lochnagar Distillery Cooperage
Worm tubs and pump house for the still room on the left, and the old malt floors including pagoda chimney for the kiln, in the building on the right. The malt house is now used for warehousing.
Worm tubs and pump house for the still room on the left, and the old malt floors including pagoda chimney for the kiln, in the building on the right. The malt house is now used for warehousing.
Formerly the malt stores and malt floors, the building is now used for warehousing.
Formerly the malt stores and malt floors, the building is now used for warehousing.
Still house exterior showing the square worm tubs. The water in the worm tubs is kept hot, which keeps the spirit as a vapor for longer, prolonging reactivity with the copper. This helps Royal Lochnagar achieve a light spirit even though the stills are quite short (which would normally produce a heavy spirit).
Still house exterior showing the square worm tubs. The water in the worm tubs is kept hot, which keeps the spirit as a vapor for longer, prolonging reactivity with the copper. This helps Royal Lochnagar achieve a light spirit even though the stills are quite short (which would normally produce a heavy spirit).
Square Worm Condensers at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. The worm tubs use warm water to keep the spirit vapour reacting with the copper for longer.
Square Worm Condensers at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. The worm tubs use warm water to keep the spirit vapour reacting with the copper for longer.
Royal Lochnagar Stills - wash still on the left (red door seal) holds 7,410 litres. The spirit still is on the right.
Royal Lochnagar Stills - wash still on the left (red door seal) holds 7,410 litres. The spirit still is on the right.
Low wines / spirit safe with outlet pointing at the foreshots bowl
Low wines / spirit safe with outlet pointing at the foreshots bowl
The Wash Still at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. It's capacity is 7,410 litres. The still is quite short and onion shaped, which would normally result in a heavy spirit, however, Royal Lochnagar crafts their spirit to be 'light' and grassy.
The Wash Still at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. It's capacity is 7,410 litres. The still is quite short and onion shaped, which would normally result in a heavy spirit, however, Royal Lochnagar crafts their spirit to be 'light' and grassy.
Low Wines / Spirit Still at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Royal Lochnagar has only one pair of stills, producing around 450,000 litres per annum. The spirit still holds 5,450 litres but is generally only charged with around 4,000 litres of low wines at a time.
Low Wines / Spirit Still at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Royal Lochnagar has only one pair of stills, producing around 450,000 litres per annum. The spirit still holds 5,450 litres but is generally only charged with around 4,000 litres of low wines at a time.
Washbacks at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Washback No. 3 is not in use - note the gaps in the timbers!
Washbacks at Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Washback No. 3 is not in use - note the gaps in the timbers!
Royal Lochnagar Distillery Mash Tun - one of few open topped tuns still in use in Scotland
Royal Lochnagar Distillery Mash Tun - one of few open topped tuns still in use in Scotland
Duty paid warehouse at Royal Lochnagar - used by Diageo to train their Malt Advocates
Duty paid warehouse at Royal Lochnagar - used by Diageo to train their Malt Advocates

For more images and prints see our Royal Lochnagar Distillery Gallery

References & Further Reading

  1. Alfred Barnard, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, 2008 Edition, first published in 1887 by Harpers Weekly Gazette
  2. Royal Lochnagar History, Malts.com
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